One of the most nerve-wracking moments in the process of writing a book – and this applies across every genre, to fiction and non-fiction, and to novice writers as well as the most seasoned published author – is that moment of self-doubt when you ask yourself what on earth possessed you ever to put finger to keyboard in the first place. Some writers experience self-doubt all the way through, while others are assailed at regularly unwelcome intervals by that dull nagging feeling that what started out as a brilliant idea might not, ultimately, be as crisp and original and fascinating as they first supposed. It can be especially debilitating and bewildering when self-doubt sets in when you think you’re done. You have drafted and redrafted and scoured and examined your cunning plot line, and dealt with the characters who felt undeveloped, but still … is it actually any good? Will anyone want to read it? Will an agent’s pulse quicken when he reads the opening chapter? Will a publisher believe she has a bestseller in front of her?
Whether creeping self-doubt doesn’t apply to you and you have read and re-read your manuscript and you feel satisfied and confident that it’s the best it’s going to be, still you should welcome a last dispassionate, objective read before you send it off from someone who will offer you encouragement, wisdom, sound advice and support at this stage in your writing journey. Even if, as a result of their reading, it’s back to the drawing board for you.
Who should you trust with your manuscript and what can you expect from a good reader?
It may be stating the obvious, but while you may value and trust the opinions of your immediate family or friends, these people are seldom the best readers for your book just before you plan to submit it to an agent or publisher. Family and friends generally love you and want you to succeed (or maybe they don’t love you and meanly want you to crash and burn), but frankly, no one cares if your mother loves your romantic saga and your pilates teacher thinks it’s “very good”. These people have different roles to play in your life. The friend who was fabulous at English at school and always picks up spelling mistakes in books may not be the critical, dispassionate, intelligent eye that will be helpful to you now either.
Friends are also often and mystifyingly tempted all of a sudden to become writers themselves, and want to “help” you rewrite your book and question your use of commas. This can have the effect of throwing you back into serious self-doubt or endlessly obsessing over your grasp of punctuation and redrafting five more times. Here’s a tip: don’t worry about the commas. Copy editors are paid to do that.
Is it just a reader you want at this point, or an editor? Probably, if you’re lucky, you’ll get a combination of both in one person. In any event try to pick someone you believe can be objective and honest and will give you a frank opinion. If you don’t have anyone you know who fits this bill, an option is to engage a good professional reader to do this for you for a fee. There are a number of professional readers who offer this service to writers and to publishers, just as there are a number of freelance editors who will give you different kinds of editorial help. This kind of expert reader/editor, especially an experienced one, is worth their weight in gold. They can be the difference between getting noticed and published or getting passed over.
A professional reader could save you from, for example, a fatal timeline flaw in your plot that you simply missed – it’s hard to believe but this happens quite often. Or he will pick up a glaring error or something that is just plain factually wrong, something you’ve unforgivably overlooked even though your research has been meticulous. At the very least these things can jar and, at worst, jeopardise your authority as the writer and call into question the integrity of the whole book.
Professional readers/editors aren’t invested in your book or in you personally and have no interest in pleasing you by saying the right thing. They will give you a written report and a considered, professional opinion because that’s what you’re paying them to do. But do choose your readers carefully. Ask them which authors they have worked with before. Talk to those authors. Phone up publishers and ask them to recommend a good professional reader. Mostly, publishers will be helpful – it’s in their interest as much as yours to find that gem glinting brightly in the slush pile.